Parents could pay more for their kids to take driver’s education

Asher Philips, 15, runs through a driving checklist alongside instructor Curtis Wilson during the behind-the-wheel portion of the driver’s education program run by Jordan Driving School on Aug. 19, 2015.
Asher Philips, 15, runs through a driving checklist alongside instructor Curtis Wilson during the behind-the-wheel portion of the driver’s education program run by Jordan Driving School on Aug. 19, 2015. News & Observer file photo

North Carolina might change the way families pay for driver’s education, a revision that could save some parents money but cost others hundreds of dollars more.

Families now pay up to $65 for their teens to take driver’s education, and the state gives school systems money to cover the rest of the cost. But the state Senate’s budget proposal would change the program so parents pay up front the full cost of driver’s education with the option to get reimbursed up to $275 – if the student passes the state test to get a learner’s permit on the first try.

Supporters say the proposed Driver Safety Incentive Program would encourage students to try harder to pass the test to get their permit. Critics say the change would make the roads less safe because more teens, particularly those who can’t afford the higher fee, might skip driver’s ed before they get their license.

The Senate has made multiple attempts over the years to change the driver’s ed program.

“We’ve said for years that the current model for driver’s education simply isn’t delivering the best results for our young people,” Amy Auth, a spokeswoman for Senate leader Phil Berger, said in a written statement. “Past studies have found that 46 percent of students that complete the state driver education course subsequently fail the DMV test, even after multiple attempts.

“By tying reimbursement to passing the DMV exam on the first try, we are creating an incentive for parents to ensure their students actually study and take the test seriously.”

Opponents are lobbying lawmakers to back the driver’s ed version in the House budget that would continue the program in its current form.

“If the Senate’s version of the budget prevails, driver’s education will no longer be offered as we have known in the past,” said Connie Sessoms, executive director of the North Carolina Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association. “It will fail to meet the needs of most of our students. At the end of the day, the bottom line is we’re talking life and death.”

Some say many families don’t have $275, even if they can get reimbursed, to pay for driver’s ed. Wake County school board members complained this week that the Senate plan would harm lower-income families.

“What does this do for the family that doesn’t have $275 in disposable income?” said Wake County school board member Jim Martin.

Under North Carolina’s graduated licensing program, driver’s education is mandatory for anyone younger than 18 who applies to get a learner’s permit. Students get 30 hours of classroom instruction and six hours behind the wheel before taking the test to get their permit.

State law requires school systems to offer driver’s education to every student in public, private and home-schools in their districts who wants the program. Statewide, 100,000 teens take driver’s education a year with the Wake County school system expecting to serve 13,000 students next school year.

Once they turn 18, teens can get a license without the class by passing state Division of Motor Vehicles tests.

Driver’s education used to be free for families. But since 2011, school districts are allowed to charge a fee to help offset cuts in state funding.

The Senate budget proposal would take it to the next step, allowing districts to charge what it costs them to provide driver’s education. Wake school officials say it costs the district between $260 and $280 per student.

Under the Senate plan, families of students who pass the learner’s permit on the first try would request a reimbursement of up to $275 from the state Department of Public Instruction.

Shelly Carver, a spokeswoman for Senate leader Phil Berger, pointed out that the Senate budget allows school districts to reduce or waive the driver’s ed fee for students who are unable to pay due to economic hardship. Districts can also request reimbursement for the amount that’s not charged to the student.

But the Senate budget also removes the requirement that districts provide financial assistance for driver’s education, according to Kris Nordstrom, education finance and policy consultant for the N.C. Justice Center’s Education and Law Project. He said the state should not drop the financial assistance requirement the same time the cap on fees would be lifted.

“It’s really bad language that will have an impact on access for low-income students,” Nordstrom said. “It will be bad and disproportionately fall on low-income students.”

It’s unrealistic to expect school systems to help cover driver’s ed for families who can’t pay the $275, considering how districts aren’t getting enough money they need, according to Sessoms of the state driver’s ed association.

Half of the 12,000 teens who take driver’s education annually in Mecklenburg County would skip the program if they had to pay $275 up front, said Sessoms, who also coordinates driver’s ed for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system.

“We’re putting 50 percent of our students out there with no driver safety training,” he said. “I’m telling you in my opinion that’s not safe.

“We’re putting the entire motoring public at risk. These students don’t drive in a vacuum.”

A potential complication is the thousands of students statewide who have started driver’s ed but won’t complete it before the fiscal year ends June 30. If the Senate’s driver’s ed program is adopted in the final state budget, Sessoms said it’s possible students who’ve already begun driver’s ed could be asked to pay $200 more to continue.

Wake County hasn’t decided what it will do financially with the students who finish driver’s ed after June 30 if the Senate’s changes are adopted, according to Lisa Luten, a school district spokeswoman.

Eyes will remain focused on state lawmakers as they work to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate budgets.

“Department staff are working with the General Assembly to more fully understand the implications of the legislation,” said Lynda Fuller, a DPI spokeswoman. “We look forward to receiving the next iteration as the budget moves forward.”

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui